Tempe Deserves a Refund from Fiesta Bowl

By: Ron Pies

In a recent editorial the Arizona Republic stated:

“Insult is a powerful motivator. So powerful, in fact, it turned metro Phoenix into a Mecca of college football.

It all began in the 1960s, when the football establishment routinely snubbed Arizona State University as a potential opponent in postseason bowl play.

People here got angry and took the matter to hand. They built their own bowl game, invited ASU to the first three and the Sun Devils won all three.

Born of such small ambitions, the Fiesta Bowl has evolved through four decades into one of the mighty classics, a regular bolt of economic lightning. Over the last five years, the game has generated more than $1 billion in commerce for the Valley of the Sun.

By the late 1990s, the Fiesta Bowl had grown so prestigious it was a logical partner for the Bowl Championship Series, then forming to stage college football’s national championship. As a member of that elite rotation for title games, metro Phoenix enjoyed a combined $235 million in economic activity this year from its two BCS bowl games and $355 million total when adding the third ring of the Valley’s college football extravaganza – the Insight Bowl.

We provide this background to remind readers that we well recognize the Fiesta Bowl and BCS have been tremendous boons to this Valley. Every large success, however, must at some point confront the problems of staggering growth, and today the Fiesta Bowl and BCS are looking squarely at theirs.”

Republic reporter Craig Harris has led the coverage on much of these developments, bringing into sharp focus the influence peddling and unrestrained spending of Fiesta Bowl management. His stories forced that organization to launch a sweeping internal investigation that led to significant reforms and new management.

Today the BCS faces similar scrutiny after years of raising college football’s TV exposure and postseason revenues to new heights. Its original structure has not adapted quickly enough to the changing football universe. Five of its conferences that don’t get automatic bowl births feel slighted and shut out.

In a follow-up to his Fiesta Bowl investigation, Harris found that 41 percent of schools participating in BCS bowls end up losing money because their share of the payout isn’t enough to cover expenses. It is up to member conferences to distribute bowl earnings to its schools, but too often they are not adequately reimbursing the team that bore the actual expense of playing in a bowl game.

Harris further found that BCS bowls spend heavily on gifts to influence college football’s decision-makers; that bowl executives are paid well above the national norm for non-profit CEOs; and that bowl games are getting government subsidies despite maintaining strong reserves.

If the BCS is going to address these issues, the time is ripe.

An NCAA task force is examining how the bowls are managed and will report its findings later this month. In April, BCS officials will meet in Miami to begin negotiating future contracts.

Here are changes the BCS should consider:

– Find ways to be more inclusive of colleges and conferences beyond the BCS orbit. The shake-up of major college conferences may solve some of that. But the BCS was created to match the best teams in the biggest bowls. That being its lodestar, the BCS should explore better ways to open its bowls to the emerging football powers knocking at the door.

–  Use its influence to compel member conferences to spread the wealth more fairly among their colleges and universities so that bowl participants are made whole for travel and other related costs. A tiered system of payout would fix this.

– Work to make sure salaries of bowl officials fall within a reasonable range of not-for-profit organizations. Granted, the role of bowl games is unique in the not-for-profit world, and the talent pool for top executives is narrow with salaries that are typically higher than most non-profits. Nonetheless, those salaries should not be exorbitant.

– Re-examine public subsidies. Does it make sense for bowls to go to government for funding when public dollars are increasingly scarce? If the answer is yes, then the need must be clearly demonstrated.

The BCS can legitimately boast it has done much to raise the prominence of college football, but its detractors are multiplying and its future less certain.

With so many eyes trained on the bowl system at this moment, it’s a good time to take seriously the criticisms and address them.

Done right, the BCS will continue to serve college football for many years to come.

A recent investigative report by Craig Harris and the Arizona Republic uncovered a list of abuses that eventually led to the termination of the head of the Fiesta Bowl.  Amongst those abuses was exorbitant salaries, the use of Bowl funds for personal uses,  elaborate gifts  for officials.   All of this was possible with the waiver of city and state taxes and subsidies from valley cities that amounted ino several million dollars.  All this was done at a time when revenues were so low that budgets were cut and employees laid off.  At the same time, the Fiesta Bowl shows a very healthy multi million dollar balance in their treasury.

I fully support the Fiesta Bowl and watched as the founders built a premier college football bowl and generated millions for the economy.  Why then was is it necessary for our city to sacrifice needed revenues when the bowl is so healthy that it can afford the extravagances listed in the report.

Isn’t it time for a refund?